A more systemic solution is needed to ensure competent managers make the decisions – in Opinion by Neil Macleod

Critical comment

There has been much critical comment about the deployment of Cuban “engineers” to help SA municipalities provide water and sanitation services. This was sparked in large measure by the fact that there are at least 300 water sector professionals in SA who are underemployed or unemployed and could (and should) be used to provide the support many municipalities so obviously need.

But neither the Cubans nor the SA professionals will make a difference until the fundamental problem is tackled: most SA municipalities are not equipped to deliver on their water supply and sanitation responsibilities. This has been recognised by the municipalities themselves, as reported by the Municipal Services Strategic Assessment carried out in 2018.

Municipalities vulnerability

This covered 18 criteria to assess municipalities’ vulnerability to predictable pressures and went beyond the technical issues that are the usual focus to also consider financial, human resources, quality of water and wastewater treatment, management capacity and customer management issues.

The assessment highlighted immense challenges. About 78% of respondents said they were in an extremely vulnerable or highly vulnerable state. Only 6% — mainly the metropolitan municipalities — regarded themselves as being at a low level of vulnerability.

The situation has worsened since Covid-19

Since the arrival of Covid-19 it is safe to assume the situation has worsened. Evidence is the increasing number of service delivery protests and cases of communities seeking to take over the management of their services from failing municipalities.

In these difficult circumstances parachuting in a few technical professionals — black or white, South Africans or Cubans — will not deal with the water and sanitation situation in 94% of our municipal water supply areas. The problems are more systemic.

Managerial competencies beyond technical skills are required to run what is, for most of the municipalities concerned, one of the larger responsibilities in their portfolios. But too often managers are three or four levels down in the hierarchy, with little status or influence, even though the effective delivery of safe, reliable and sustainable water supply and sanitation services often is citizens’ top requirement.

Such priority needs to be reflected in the management of the function, which can only be done if demonstrably competent officials are appointed — and supported — to ensure the job is done properly. To achieve this, the Water Institute of Southern Africa (Wisa) believes we should follow the approach adopted in other critical areas, such as financial management.

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Qualification for professional water services managers

There is a need to introduce a compulsory qualification that will develop the competencies of a cadre of water services managers to enable them to manage their operations effectively. Precedents already exist — city managers and municipal financial officers are required to have specific qualifications to be appointable. The qualification for professional water services managers would cover the 18 criteria used in the Municipal Services Strategic Assessment process.

Attempts have been made in the past to provide appropriate training and qualifications. But there is little appetite for this since municipalities have not recognised the value of such an effort, have not supported participation in such courses, and have not indicated that they would give water service managers the rank and remuneration they deserve.

As part of the government’s broader drive to professionalise the public service Wisa is therefore suggesting that the requirement for such a broad water management qualification be introduced into the national legislation, making the appointment of such a professional compulsory for municipal water service providers — and advisable for other organisations working in the sector.

As a professional association for the water sector Wisa already supports and recognises professional process controllers, who are responsible for assuring the quality of municipal drinking water and wastewater.

Enforcing a requirement for broader professional qualifications should not be seen as a punitive action but one that will incentivise and support water managers to obtain the skills needed to become more effective.

The outcome will be better — more productive employees, improved financial sustainability at local government level, and happy, healthy customers that value their municipal water and sanitation services.

• Macleod is a member of Wisa’s technical committee. A civil engineer, he is a former head of Ethekwini’s water & sanitation department.